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Leonardo da Vinci (Vinci 1452-Amboise 1519)

The muscles of the upper spine c.1510-11

Back chalk, pen and ink, wash | 28.9 x 20.5 cm (sheet of paper) | RCIN 919015

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  • A folio from Leonardo's 'Anatomical Manuscript A'.

    Recto: five studies of the muscles of the back and shoulder, showing a sequence of dissection from superficial to deep. At lower right is one of Leonardo’s ‘thread diagrams’, combining the previous five drawings into a single schematic depiction, with each muscle represented by a cord along its line of action.

    Leonardo’s primary concern here was the movement and stabilisation of the upper spine. This is a complex, layered region and extremely difficult to dissect with fresh material; while Leonardo’s details are not perfect, the fact that he was able to arrive at a clear grasp of the area is highly impressive. As usual, the page should be read from upper right to lower left – the five main drawings are labelled 1st to 5th, showing the order of dissection from superficial to deep.

    In the first drawing the trapezius muscle is shown as a fused bundle of more or less distinct elements, with its origins running down the upper vertebrae (its upper point on the occipital bone is not seen) and its insertion on the spine of the scapula. Leonardo’s drawing seems to show the lower portions attached to, or even disappearing under, the medial (inner) margin of the scapula, below the level of its spine. Next, trapezius is removed to reveal supraspinatus, and levator scapulae is seen running upwards from the scapula. What is probably serratus posterior superior is shown as three muscles running diagonally downwards from the spine.

    In the third drawing levator scapulae is reduced to threads, and rhomboid major and the posterior layer of the thoracolumbar fascia are removed to show the erector spinae muscles coursing upwards; some ribs are now glimpsed, with their external intercostal muscles. The inferior belly of the omohyoid muscle and components of the brachial plexus are indicated above the scapula, and the three muscles representing serratus posterior superior are seen again. That muscle is often so poorly developed that it can be missed by the novice dissector; but its insertion on the ribs led Leonardo to believe that it was important for breathing.

    In the fourth drawing Leonardo removes serratus posterior superior, and the view of the erector spinae muscles is now unimpeded, together with a splenius muscle, probably splenius capitis, coursing upwards. In the fifth drawing this has been removed, and the spinalis muscles are seen coursing downwards, with what may be semispinalis capitis running more vertically. At lower right is a ‘thread diagram’ that attempts to combine the previous five drawings into a single schematic depiction, with trapezius shown as at least twelve threads between the spinous processes and different parts of the scapula. And below centre is a schematic depiction of a vertebra pulled in different directions by the tendons of ten muscles: Leonardo saw that for almost every muscle acting on a vertebra, another acts in the opposite direction, and the system therefore effects movement while simultaneously stabilising the spinal column.

    Text from M. Clayton and R. Philo, Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist, London 2012


    Verso: notes on the muscles of the back, with two small drawings and a diagram demonstrating either the elevation of the ribs by the back muscles, or possibly the support of the neck by the muscles attached to the shoulder blades.

    Bequeathed to Francesco Melzi; from whose heirs purchased by Pompeo Leoni, c.1582-90; Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel, by 1630; probably acquired by Charles II; Royal Collection by 1690

  • Medium and techniques

    Back chalk, pen and ink, wash


    28.9 x 20.5 cm (sheet of paper)


    watermark: Unidentified